Yesterday’s post on David Cameron’s latest tranche of peers provoked the following question from a reader:
Why don’t you support an elected House of Lords?
In principle, I have nothing against the idea of an elected Lords. My objections stem from the fact that almost all proposals for an elected House thus far have been predicated on the idea that it would continue to be subordinate to the House of Commons, and I think this is a mistake.
At the moment, it makes sense for the Commons to enjoy primacy over the Lords since MPs have a mandate from the people and peers do not. But if members of the House of Lords suddenly have their own mandate, the Commons’ primacy becomes harder to justify. Of course it’s entirely possible to have an elected second chamber that’s still subordinate (e.g., Japan’s House of Councilors and Ireland’s Seanad can both be overruled by their respective lower houses), but the more powerful Senates of Australia and America are equally valid templates as well. Politicians and the public need to figure out what kind of a second chamber they want before they start fussing about its composition.
Since MPs are unlikely to support anything that would lessen their power, the Lords is likely to remain a revising chamber. But if that’s the case, I’m not sure elections are the way to go. In the current House, there are peers who are experts in various fields (e.g., Lord Winston) as well as peers who don’t take a party whip (the Crossbenchers, of which there are 179 at the moment). I’m not sure you’d see either in an elected House of Lords.
Today, it’s relatively easy to combine service in the House with a career outside politics since peers are free to attend as much or a little as they like. But if they were elected, they would almost certainly have to become full-time politicians, and that would likely discourage a lot of scientists, doctors, and other experts from throwing their hats into the ring.
Elections would also make it harder for independents to enter the Lords since the slick electoral machinery of the major parties gives their candidates a huge advantage. I suppose you could try establishing independent-only seats, but I don’t see that being workable unless the state is prepared to offer funding for those campaigns.
In short, I think elections are only imperative if the second chamber is going to be on the same footing as the House of Commons. But if it’s going to be a revising chamber that provides expert scrutiny, it should probably remain an appointed body.